In a speech delivered at a conference in Riyadh in early May 2012, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the secretary-general of the GCC, addressed the numerous changes that have taken place in the region in recent years. “The new political, security and military challenges, at the regional and international levels, as well as insecurity in the Arab region and the changes in the regional and global forces of power demand that we look into developing the GCC,” Al Zayani said. “We need to reset the GCC priorities and strategic objectives to empower them to match the changes and events that we are witnessing today.” Al Zayani’s remarks serve to highlight the central role that the council has played in the development of the region over the past three decades. The GCC is currently among the wealthiest regions in the world, with a per capita GDP in excess of $30,000 at the end of 2011, compared to a global average of around $10,000.
While the GCC has seen unprecedented economic expansion over the past 30 years, its member states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are facing several challenges. These include a number of security issues, ranging from the ongoing tension with Iran, continuing instability in Iraq and the impact of the Arab Spring. On the economic front, a continuing reliance on hydrocarbons-related income throughout the area is considered to be a long-term liability. The region also faces various environmental challenges, such as a water shortage. The Gulf states have implemented a number of regional programmes to address these issues.
The formation of the GCC in 1981 was widely considered to be the logical outcome of years of cooperation and mutual support among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula. The countries that currently make up the council are linked by a shared history, culture and religion. The Arabian Peninsula, as the historical home of Islam, has often exerted considerable influence throughout the Middle East. During the early and mid-19th century many of the sheikhdoms in the Gulf region signed maritime treaties with the British empire, which was considered to be a major defeat for the Ottomans at the time. By the early 20th century the British had concluded agreements with most of the local tribes and other authorities in the Gulf, shoring up their influence over a wide area that today includes all or part of the six GCC member states.
In September 1932, after 30 years of expansion and consolidation in central Arabia, the Al Saud family announced the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While Kuwait declared independence from the UK in 1961, the British remained the primary power in the Gulf until the late 1960s, when the UK revealed that it planned to quit the region entirely by the early 1970s. Over the next few years the other countries that would eventually make up the GCC came into their own. In 1971, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE all became independent nations.
In addition to economic expansion, the GCC has launched or announced plans for a number of other regional initiatives in recent years.
The GCC power infrastructure project, which was launched in 2001, seeks to connect the six power grids to one another, thereby enabling electricity sharing throughout the Gulf. The power infrastructure project is expected to save the GCC region an estimated $5.01bn in electricity costs on an annual basis, as member countries will be able to move electricity supply around the region based on demand.
The GCC rail project, which is in the early stages of development, will eventually link all six GCC states at a cost of $200bn. It is expected to be up and running by 2018, and indeed, some countries have already begun laying track. In the UAE, for example, Etihad Rail has begun work on a 264-km line running from gas fields in the desert to Ruwais, a major coastal port.
Other initiatives currently under way or under discussion in the GCC include a joint project to supply and distribute desalinated water; a regional food and drug authority; and a centre for public health in the Gulf.
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